In its Wednesday financial report, Alpha blamed low natural gas prices and a mild winter for coal's current downturn, but said tougher regulations are "exacerbating the situation."
Alpha said it plans to continue to "optimize" its Appalachian operations "by adjusting our footprint, idling high-cost thermal coal and lower-quality metallurgical coal production, while focusing on our higher-margin metallurgical products."
"We sincerely regret the impact our production curtailments have had on good employees and their families, but the market environment with which we are faced left us no other options," Crutchfield said. "We will continue to evaluate market conditions and will make further adjustments if market conditions warrant."
Late last month, Arch Coal said it was also making moves toward "realigning our Appalachian asset portfolio towards" mines that produce steel-making coal.
"Given the muted outlook for domestic thermal coal in that region, we've taken the hard step and idled five higher cost thermal operations that were unable to earn an adequate return in the current market," said Arch CEO John Eaves. "It was a difficult, but necessary, decision that was made to enhance our competitive cost structure in Appalachia and to position Arch for long-term success."
MSHA figures show that much of the increase in coal jobs between 2008 and 2011 occurred at underground mining operations, perhaps supporting the notion -- promoted by anti-mountaintop removal groups -- that tougher limits on strip-mine pollution will actually increase overall employment.
"The fact that West Virginia mining jobs have increased 8 percent since the administration began more stringent review of surface mine permits, despite the steep decline in demand for coal, indicates that strong enforcement of mine safety and environmental laws does not 'kill jobs' as coal CEOs claim," said Matt Wasson, who monitors mining data for the group Appalachian Voices.
"Coal CEOs complain about MSHA and the EPA because running safer and cleaner operations sometimes means hiring more workers, which costs a little more money," Wasson said. "It seems they're more concerned about profits for their shareholders than jobs for West Virginians, not to mention the health and welfare of their workers and the communities in which they live."
Some industry officials noted that the current heat waves in parts of the country could fuel greater coal demand to power air conditioning, and natural gas prices may be starting to increase again.
"We appear to be past the bottom," Alpha's Crutchfield said of the industry's woes.
Government forecasters aren't so sure, especially if the industry is hoping for a major rebound in Appalachia.
Over the next 25 years, the projected coal share of overall U.S. electricity generation is expected to fall to 39 percent, well below the 49-percent share seen as recently as 2007, according to DOE.
At the same time, DOE projects that coal production in Central Appalachian -- mostly Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky -- will drop by more than half between 2011 and 2035.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.